The Bar-Kays were an aggregate born of the same inspiration behind Booker T. & the MG's – performing the double-duty of being a backing combo for the significant canon of vocalists on the Memphis-based Stax and Volt labels, as well as a self-contained unit. The original lineup of James Alexander (bass), Jimmy King (guitar), Ronnie Caldwell (organ), Phalon Jones (sax), Carl Cunningham (drums), and Ben Cauley (trumpet) were only together long enough to have issued this album prior to the tragic loss of everyone sans Alexander and Cauley in the December '67.
The Bar-Kays were early progenitors of '70s funk. BLACK ROCK/GOTTA GROOVE is two records on one CD; both albums feature early incarnations of the band. The tracks on GOTTA GROOVE are from 1968, one year after the group had lost four of its members in the same plane crash that killed Otis Redding.
Although the Bar-Kays stuck with the Stax Records until its demise in 1976, the label stopped releasing the group's recordings after 1973. However, when they re-emerged as a success on the Mercury label with hits like "Shake Your Rump to the Funk," some unreleased recordings they made between 1974 and 1976 were released as an album entitled Money Talks. Although this repackaging was obviously designed to cash in on the group's success, Money Talks stands up as a solid and consistent album in its own right. This material lays the groundwork for the Bar-Kays' post-Stax style by trading live-in-the-studio jams for a carefully produced sound and blending in standout pop hooks into the funky grooves. The best example is "Holy Ghost," a hard-grooving monster of a jam where elaborate horn arrangements dance around a thick synthesizer bassline as Larry Dodson lays down a salacious vocal about his lover's otherworldly romantic skills. It became a big R&B hit when released as a single in 1978 and was later sampled by M/A/R/R/S on their club classic "Pump Up the Volume".
Although the ' membership had once topped ten members, by 1987 only , , and remained. The band's sound had completely transfigured, too, leaving behind most of their early funk trappings for the synth pop sounds of the day, a style which actually was well-suited to 's unique vocal style and the band's high-energy pop.
By 1981, the Bar-Kays were firmly at the front of the synth-laden R&B pack that would come to dominate much of the scene. But, although they had left their Stax era chops behind, four albums into their Mercury career the band was still capable of flinging some fine funk your way. Best described, perhaps, as contemporary and more urban dance, Nightcruising showcased the band in fine form.
For those looking to find a crash course in "the funk" – a quick introduction to the fusion of R&B, soul, jazz, blues, good old rock & roll, and all-out outrageousness that creates the ultimate good groove – you can't do much better than the Funk Essentials compilations. Funky Stuff: The Best of Funk Essentials is the perfect portrait. With its contents drawn from the single-band Funk Essentials compilation albums, this clean, clear set provides incredible diversity while keeping the vibe connected. In other words, Funky Stuff is not only an introduction to the heaviest of hitters, but also a nifty, smooth ride for the already initiated.